Friday, 29 August 2014

A whale not seen for 20 years!

We were amazed this summer when we photographed an adult male we didn't recognise and after some searching realised he had last been seen in 1994! Yes, 20 years ago! 9459 is the code it was assigned when first seen and added to the catalogue of Icelandic killer whales existing at the time. Since then it had never been seen again until our first day out in the water this summer. There he was, in a large aggregation of whales just off Geirfuglasker in Vestmannaeyjar.

9459 seen in Vestmannaeyjar.
This incredible sighting shows us some interesting things. First, it tells us he is an old male! Most likely he is at least in his 40s, since he was already a fully grown adult male when first identified in 1994. Second, it shows how little we still know about this population. Unlike populations in other parts of the world, there haven't been dedicated long-term efforts following Icelandic killer whales. Studies first started in the 1980s by the Marine Research Institute, but much of what has been studied about these animals since then has come from opportunistic studies or short-term studies, with dedicated effort for a few years.

Much of the difficulty of studying killer whales in Iceland comes with unpredictable changes in their distribution as they follow their herring prey which changes its location throughout the year and between years. And of course, many locations where whales occur are difficult to access or exposed to weather making working conditions, well, unworkable! This is why it is so important to have as much help as possible! Sighting reports from anyone out at sea that comes across killer whales makes it possible to understand which whales go where.

Of course some animals may be only occasional visitors in Iceland and so will not be seen for long periods of time simply because they are elsewhere. But we don't know if this is the case! Long-term studies and wide coverage make it possible to have an idea of the residency patterns of whales in Icelandic coastal waters that help us answer questions such as that.

And it is not just knowing the whereabouts of whales. By regularly following who is around we can better understand birth rates, mortality rates and we can even estimate how many whales are likely to live in Icelandic coastal waters. All this information help us understand if the population is doing well or is facing any threats. As top predators, these whales play a very important role in the food chain so knowing more about them is crucial to our understanding of the whole ecosystem.

Find out below how you can help!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Thank you team!

This summer we went back to the beautiful Westman islands. For most the weather was terrible in the Southwest of Iceland, but somehow on 'killer whale land' things seemed to work out! We had beautiful weather to start and to end our season but a variety of weather conditions in between. Yet luckily the whales changed their distribution throughout July and came ever closer to Heimaey, the island where we were living. In the last two days the whales were just hugging Heimaey's west coast (we could see them from the window of the house) and made for a spectacular sight to all the locals that went out to see it. It is not often you get such calm waters in Vestmannaeyjar as we had in our last couple of days (see video), what a nice way to say goodbye to this wonderful place.

The slow change in the location where whales were found made it possible for us to make use of short weather windows to go out in the water. Key to this was searching from Heimaey's weather station. This is the highest point on the island and it has incredible views over the southern part of the archipelago. It allowed us to check what the sea state looked like in different parts of the archipelago and, most importantly, spot where the whales might be! In fact going to the weather station to spot for whales was a daily routine and helped us make sure we could quickly get to where the whales were. Time was of the essence when high winds were fast approaching!

The team (David, Filipa, Gaëtan, Katy, Leticiaà, Paul, Sara and Volker) at the weather station looking at a passing humpback whale. A great place to see all the islands and spot whales!
Dr. Volker Deecke and PhD student Leticiaà Legat from the University of Cumbria joined us this summer and with them brought a towed hydrophone array. With this we were ready to multitask! We could use the towed array to make acoustic recordings while on the move following whales to get photographs for photo-id. Whenever possible we also attempted to collect skin samples which will be used for studies on the whales' diet, genetics and pollutant levels. The only thing the short weather windows did not allow us to attempt was tagging. This was because the tag, attached with suction cups, stays on the whale for a few hours during which we follow the whale to then recover the tag once it comes off and floats at the surface. But getting the tag on is anything but easy and so requires a longer day out in the water.

Despite the weather we managed to collect enough data to end with a very happy smile in our faces. But none of this would have been possible without the rest of the team: Katy Gavrilchuck, David Gaspard and Gaëtan Richard. Katy and David were the skilled skippers and Gaëtan helped with everything from acoustics to biopsy sampling. The next few months will be spent analysing all the precious information we collected and we will keep you posted on our findings. But in our memories will remain the good times we spent in Heimaey with a great bunch of people!

Thank you everyone for making this a fantastic field season!

Adult male surfaces with Heimaey in the background (photo by Sara Tavares).